Other than my day in the Wachau region, exploring Schonbrunn Palace and Gardens was my favorite part of Vienna. I spent about an hour touring part of the castle, and the next 3 1/2 hours were spent wandering the grounds. It was a perfectly beautiful and relaxing day.
My mom, who is my go to person for travel tips, was visiting my aunt, who happens to be going on a trip to Vienna in a few months, while I planned my trip to Vienna. They suggested visiting Melk and enjoying the Wachau Valley, which is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I took their advice and am so glad I did, it was one of the highlights of my trip.
Melk is about an hour train ride from Vienna and feels entirely different than the city of Vienna. Vienna is a city sprawled out on a flat plain, Melk is a small town in rolling green hills nestled along the Danube. It was quite the contrast to Vienna and a great change of pace. On perhaps the highest hill sits Melk Abbey, offering great views of the Abbey from almost everywhere I walked in the town. The small quiet streets lined with shops were so relaxing and had I the time I could have stayed there for days.
The Abbey is large and full of so much rich history. Perhaps my favorite room was the one room where photographs were not allowed, the library. Exquisite jewels, embroidered tapestries, marble halls- these are all wonderful and intriguing, but nothing is quite as blissful as shelves of books set in rich wood towering over my head. The balcony overhead that led into the adjoining room, the plethora of books holding so much history, the massive old globe sitting between the tall cases…it was heavenly.
After touring the abbey and strolling around the gardens I walked down to the river for a little boat trip. The scenic boat ride offered beautiful views of charming villages and old ruins scattered along the rivers edge and nestled in the rolling hills and surrounding vineyards. I ended my trip in Krems, another quiet riverside village. After meandering through the village and enjoying a snack in the park I headed back to Vienna.
Vienna seemed overwhelming as I planned my trip. I was worried that two and half days might not be enough to see everything on my list, but it was the perfect amount of time. I arrived Monday afternoon and spent the remainder of the day wandering around the grounds of Hofburg Palace and the numerous surrounding parks, enjoying a delicious cake from Demel (per Rick Steve’s recommendation, that man knows good cake!), and walking in the direction of any building that caught my eye. Every street I turned down seemed to have multiple buildings or monuments that I was drawn to, I felt like I was being pulled in a million different directions. I loved it.
I ended the evening at Rathaus (city hall) to join in the summer film festival where concerts and various films are shown for free. That night was an Italian Opera by Giuseppe Verdi. While opera is beautiful and the performers are undeniably talented, it just doesn’t hold my attention for my long. I lasted about 40 minutes before making my way back to the hostel. I blame it on the lack of subtitles. 3 hour opera in Italian, and I have no idea what they are saying? I’m impressed I made it as long as I did.
When my Czech family told me we were going to Madeira, they told me the island was lush and green. We arrived and the part of the island we were on was brown, yellow, and anything but lush. Apparently they have had 1% of their average annual rainfall since September, that with temperatures in the 90’s was not a good combination.
We went to dinner up in the hills one evening at their friends summer house. We were all sitting out on the terrace overlooking the ocean enjoying dinner, having a grand old time. I went inside for a minute and when I came back out I noticed smoke above the house. Just a little, nothing serious. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed it (everyone there was Czech which means the only talking happening was in Czech, which means I understood nothing that was being said). I could tell people had seen it, but it wasn’t an issue. The smoke began to change from a light misty grey to thick clouds of dark charcoal streaming over the rooftop. I sat on the lounger next to the pool just staring up at the sky, thinking the fire must be pretty close. Ash began to fall lightly, and I wondered why aren’t we leaving? I in no way thought we were in danger, but standing out under the smoke and ash just didn’t seem like a good idea. Everyone still seemed unfazed the darkened sky or the increasingly large pieces of ash that were falling from the sky. As a large chunk fell into a ladies wine glass as she leaned nonchalantly against the wall, I looked around at everyone lounging on the deck of this mansions terrace and I thought are we the idiots that you see in the movies that you are just screaming at to leave? Turns out we are.
Less than 5 minutes later the lady of the house came running down the outside stairs, and I knew it was time to go. The kids started to get really nervous. Poor Anna kept shouting “I don’t have my shoes! I don’t have my shoes!” as she frantically turned circles in one spot on the verge of losing it. We climbed up the 5 flights of stairs, people were running around like crazy trying to get their stuff together (there was about 15 people staying in the house for the summer, so there was a lot of craziness with all of them trying to get their things together) and I was just standing there trying to calm the sobbing girls down as I had no idea what anyone around me was doing or saying.
The mom, girls and I headed out through the garage,and as the garage door opened I saw cars flying past. I had Anna’s hand and we started running down the hill, we could see the fire and it was close. As we ran we looked back and saw the trees around the house go up in flames. Their dad was still in the house, and they all screamed out for him as their mom ran back towards the house with the youngest girl in her arms. I grabbed Magdas hand and the three of us continued running down the hill as they sobbed and cried out for their dad. Moments later the parents were running behind us. We all continued to run down the steep mountain, I stopped to pull off my ballet flats, and my bare feet pounded the pavement as I inhaled smoke and tried to console Magda. I wanted so much to stop running, my feet and lungs were aching. A car pulled up and the family jumped in as the driver shouted at me to get in the car behind them. I hopped in, it was the security guard from the complex. He took me down to the bottom of the complex at the main road and let me out. I saw the dad getting out of the other car across the street an ran over. The rest of the family was crammed in a 5 seater with about 7 other people. We started to walk along the main road and hitch hike back to our hotel.
We quickly walked along the side of the road with our arms waving and thumbs stuck out. It was about a 30 minute car ride back to the hotel, and no one was stopping. Police cars and Ambulances flew past in the opposite direction, and the streets were lined with people staring up at the mountain as the blaze let up the night sky. Finally a car pulled over, they said they could only take us a short distance. About 5 minutes later they dropped us off, and the area was crowded with people huddled together sobbing. The passenger in the car was getting out at this location as well, and told us we were free to sleep on his floor if we could not make it back to our hotel.
We ended up standing along side the freeway trying to flag people down, but the cars kept passing. Eventually a truck pulled over and a man told us we could not stand there, it was too dangerous. We explained, and luckily he said he would help us and bring us back to the hotel. We walked into the lobby where the poor mom was pacing waiting for her husband. Their friends from dinner were at the reception desk trying to get a room and make sure their friends were ok for the night. I took the three terrified girls upstairs, Anna was crying because she thought the fire was going to reach the hotel, Magda was crying because her dad almost died, and Barbara just trailed behind us in a daze.
It was quite an evening, luckily everyone made it out safe and despite the fire raging around the house the house was ok- benefits of not having a home built with wood. As terrifying as the night should have been, I never felt nervous or afraid. I always knew we would make it back ok. There were moments when I thought the night would be much more exhausting and long, but I knew we all would be ok. The girls talked about the fire for the next several days, but I think the trauma has passed. And now I can cross hitch hiking and being evacuated off my life list.
I spent last week worshiping the sun on the island of Madeira. Almost all day, everyday me and the girls were hanging out in the pool or swimming in the ocean, which means my freckles are out in full force (I always forget how many are laying dormant under my pasty white skin waiting for the sun to beckon them out). There was of course time for playing dolls, eating delicious food (Portuguese and Italian- Parmesan Flan you may be the best thing I have ever tasted), having room service parties, teaching Barbara how to swim, riding cable cars, visiting a botanical garden, and getting evacuated due to a fire (more on that later). Minus the fire it was a pretty relaxing week with the family.
This week is the first full week the girls have been home since school got out, and it has been a busy one. I had gotten used to the school schedule, and quite preferred 7-8 hour days vs 12-14 hour days. The days may be longer, but there is always lots to do. The girls had two friends staying here for the week, so it was me and the 5 girls Monday-Friday (which ended up being until Thursday night when two of my girls got sick). Heres the week in pictures. Just a little playing in the forest, going to the zoo, and lots of time at the horse park.